National Park Service Dealing With Toxic Algal Bloom Outbreaks Across the Country

by Shelby Scott
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Climate change has been wreaking havoc on our national parks for years, with proof of that found most commonly in the wildfires that spring up around Yellowstone National Park annually. However, right now, the National Park Service is facing an entirely different kind of problem, with toxic algal bloom outbreaks taking place in parks nationwide.

While we know that toxic algal blooms stem from the rapid growth of algae in a certain body of water, the NPS is struggling because what triggers that rapid algae growth is different depending on a park’s location and its surrounding environment.

According to National Parks Traveler, Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts is one of many parks across the U.S. experiencing algal blooms. However, while the national seashore has seen red tides in the past, many of its freshwater lakes have only just begun experiencing blooms of their own.

Sophia E. Fox, the park’s aquatic ecologist, said of the freshwater blooms, “We thought we would never get them.”

Right now, the NPS’s scientists are not currently studying the connection between climate change and the harmful algal blooms within the parks. Instead, they are looking at outside factors that could be heightening the production of the toxic bacteria behind the blooms. One of the most common inland culprits is animal feeding operations. These locations are responsible for the discharge of manure as well as runoff which packs both fertilizer and manure.

Other likely culprits include urban stormwater releases and failing septic systems.

In the case of Cape Cod National Seashore, scientists are thinking that a rapid growth of cyanobacteria has begun to outpace the lakes’ natural plankton communities, thus resulting in the algal blooms.

Algal Bloom Outbreaks Span Varied Landscapes Across the U.S.

Far from the waters of Cape Cod National Seashore, Voyageurs National Park, located in Minnesota right up on the Canadian border, is also experiencing its own algal bloom problem.

Known for its varied landscape which includes rock ridges, cliffs, wetlands, forests, streams, and lakes, the park’s algal bloom is strange as there are no nearby agricultural operations or urban centers that could drive the algae’s growth. Victoria Christenson, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), believes the soil near the park could be extremely rich in nutrients, runoff washing these elements into the water. She said it’s also possible that cyanobacteria are attaching to nitrogen in the air, aiding the bloom’s growth.

Nevertheless, while the algal blooms have become a serious problem for the NPS, Christenson states in her blog on Scientific American that only a small percentage of the blooms across the U.S. actually become toxic. In fact, the algae growth resultant of the blooms aids in oxygen production, with algae producing as much as our planet’s trees.

Still, scientists working with the NPS to determine the cause of the algal blooms face a serious problem. To get a handle on the breadth of the problem, scientists have begun sampling water from national parks all over the U.S. According to National Parks Traveler, more than a dozen parks’ waters have been tested. The ongoing study covers a three-year span, and the project doesn’t conclude for another year.

As of now, U.S. Congress has provided the NPS and USGS with $300,000 to complete the study.